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Dealing with Child Stress

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The other day I was driving the girls to Walmart for a much needed grocery trip. Walmart is the only store around other than a Piggly Wiggly or Rainbow Foods – both sub-pars in my opinion in terms of product variety. From the back seat on our 30 minute drive, my four-year-old daughter, Whitney, asked for a drink of the diet soda I had sitting in the center console. We don’t usually allow her to drink soda; a few sips here and there from our cups is all she’s ever had. I responded "No, you can have some water instead." Once I put the period on that statement, she flung herself into a full game-on tantrum. She's four. She should not be throwing toddler-like tantrums anymore, yet that is what happened. She sobbed a dramatic performance worthy of an Oscar. As I drove I thought, "Wow, she’s really not letting up. This is the worst she has been in a long, long time."

Finally, we arrived at Walmart and I was relieved to get out of the confined space. I was not about to wait the tantrum out in the car because she clearly wasn’t going to calm down this way anytime soon. Big mistake. Right there in the middle of the street she firmly, stalwartly, planted her feet. Still crying hysterically, her shirt was tear stained, her face moist and blotchy. My heart broke for her in that moment, but she had to catch her breath first before we could talk. So I scooped her up and sat her into the shopping cart I pulled around from the shopping cart return outside. In we went, crying, screaming Whitney and all. 

She continued her fit inside the store. A nice old lady came over to us, bent over gingerly, and through kind, sympathetic eyes attempted to console my blubbering baby. She is usually very friendly and loves talking to nice old ladies, but she didn’t even want to do that much. I threw my hands up in surrender. This could not possibly be happening over denying her soda. I say no to soda all the time, only allowing sparing sips. Then it dawned on me. She must be stressed out about our 1500 mile move to Texas coming up in two weeks. There is no other explanation for this this type of unusual behavior. And it makes sense, really. A few days after talking to her about moving to Texas, she had a bed-wetting accident twice in one night; the first and only time she has ever done that. Plus, my husband and I have been stressed and emotionally strung-out lately. I know now that she is feeling the trickle effect with our pending move.

As soon as we found out we were moving we told both of our girls right away. The last time we moved Whitney was 1.5 years old; baby Kennedy wasn't even a glint in our eye yet. She was still too young to understand what encompasses a big move. Now that she’s older, she’s intuitive to our emotions and understands and remembers our adult conversations. 

I don’t think the compounded stress will dissipate for at least another few weeks, but I have been using some techniques to keep a happier home. Some ideas for your family:

1.) Stick to the routine. Kids thrive on routine. If you read to your children each night, put the masking tape and packing peanuts down and open a book. If baby has a play-date every Thursday at 3-o-clock, try to honor the commitment until it’s absolutely necessary to stop going. And try not to let the interruption make you feel upset. I don’t like being interrupted when I’m having a temporary productivity rock-star moment. It’s often hard for me to stop what I’m doing to pick up a book and look into my daughters’ eyes for longer than a nanosecond knowing that I have a moving to-do list up to my ears. Try. Try to welcome the break the best you can. For the littles.

2.) Recognize the emotion out loud. Young children do not understand what they are feeling. If you put a word to the emotion, it may help them come down out of the red. When my youngest gets extra loud, I say, I know you’re angry about Whitney not letting you play in her bedroom. That must make you feel sad. 

"Putting feelings into words helps kids communicate and develop 
emotional awareness — the ability to recognize their own emotional 
states. Kids who can do so are less likely to reach the behavioral
boiling point where strong emotions come out through behaviors
rather than communicated with words."  -- KidsHealth.org

3.) Listen and move on. When Whitney was having her tantrum in Walmart, she was beyond the point of talking it out. I literally had to wait it out. And then, she surprised me by taking a breath between sobs (finally!) by saying, "Mommy, I got so mad when you said no to me drinking your soda." This made me listen to her frustration, talk about it, and move past the stressful moment. 

Later that same evening after putting her to bed for the night, she quietly opened her door, stepped into the shadow of the evening light, and poked her head around the corner to look at me and Brandon. She said, "Daddy, earlier mommy said no to me drinking her soda and I threw a big fit." 

"That’s right", we said. "That wasn’t a happy moment, and we know that made you feel upset. Now it’s time for bed. Tomorrow will be a new day to laugh and play."

4.) Involve them in the process. Once the papers for our new house were signed, we showed her videos of the interior and exterior of it so she could get excited too. We did this only after we knew for certain that it was ours. We sifted through several dozen houses before landing the fit for us. I didn’t think it fair to involve her in the early stages of our house hunt since four-year-olds don’t understand the whys and the hows and the disappointment of not getting a house you really like. We recently told her that our new house has stairs to which she exclaimed, "STAIRS! Oh my gosh! This is the best day of my life!" Pure excitement.

Also, allow your child to pack their special items in their very own box. Place it last on the truck, and unpack it first when you arrive. This demonstrates that all of your things from your last home have arrived at your new home. If you hired movers, bling the box out with stickers so it stands out. Or, keep it in your personal vehicle for easy access. 

Once we told Whitney about the move she asked me if her stuffed Minnie Mouse doll was coming to the new home in Texas with us. She will place Minnie in her special box. She will feel involved in the process and gain a better understanding of a PCS (military term for permanent change of duty station, or move.)

5.) Dance. When all else fails, have a living room dance party. Seriously. Who can remain mad and stressed when you're dancing crazy to Journey?

For more information about teaching kids healthy ways in which to cope with stress surrounding a move, I suggest visiting:

All of these sites have great resources to help transition the military munchkins. And now for some Fun, Fun, Fun...

Fun Fun Fun from Erin Bettis on Vimeo.

Erin Bettis


  1. You've just given me an aha moment- we recently moved cross country and here I am wondering what in the world is going on with my 4-yr-old and her emotions. I completely forgot to think about the move and all that has gone along with it. We've been trying to adjust to life here and get back to normal but the kids might take a bit longer, or at least have some side effects... thank you!


    1. Stephanie,

      It's hard with the little ones. They don't know what's really going on or how to deal with it. Whitney has had some kind of stress with every one of our moves so far. She's usually sick the night before a big cross-country move. I'm really hoping she's healthy this time. Thank you for your comment. :)

      - Erin

  2. Great job understanding where the frustration came from. Love the video! Your girls are so stinkin cute!


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